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Meet our participants

Nearly 200 graduates and career-changers have joined Think Ahead so far. They come from a wide range of backgrounds and have studied at more than 50 different universities, with undergraduate degrees ranging from psychology, sociology, and politics, to archaeology, drama, and sports science.

Every Think Ahead participant is dedicated to making a real difference to people with mental health problems.

Here you can read about six of them.

(If you’re looking for our eligibility criteria, please visit our how to apply page).

It was the opportunity to be out on the frontline helping people that really sold Think Ahead to me.

Jack University of Warwick graduate

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Until I got talking with Think Ahead at a recruitment fair I hadn’t considered a career as a social worker, and I knew very little about social work. I knew I was looking for something challenging, exciting, and with the opportunity for progression, but I’d resisted applying for other graduate schemes because I didn’t want to be stuck in an office.

I also knew I wanted a career that would mean I could help people in some capacity. Growing up I’d worked as a part-time carer for my disabled cousin and volunteered for a local charity which ran after-school classes for children with learning difficulties, teaching them independent living skills. I’d also spent time volunteering in Malawi with the International Citizen Service, where I came across people who had HIV or other long-term illnesses, or lived in poverty – and I could see the impact that had on their mental health.

I had thought I might end up following a career in law, but I realised that interacting with people and being able to see the tangible difference I was making was the best thing about volunteering. So it was the opportunity to be out on the frontline helping people that really sold Think Ahead to me.

I’ve also had experience with mental health issues within my own family, related to ill-health and bereavement, and I’ve always felt that mental health is one of the biggest challenges in society. Using a social approach, talking to people and treating them as individuals rather than just a diagnosis, really resonates with me. I can’t imagine a more rewarding job.

Jack – University of Warwick graduate 

Social work can really improve people’s lives, helping with the social situations that play a big role in mental health.

Aisha Queen Mary University of London graduate

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I studied English Literature at university, and when I left I was really unsure about what I wanted to do. I looked at lots of corporate roles and jobs in finance, but I felt they didn’t really suit my personality. I spent some time working in HR for a luxury fashion brand, but I couldn’t see myself doing a job like that for life. I want more – I want to make a difference and do something meaningful.

A friend told me about Think Ahead. I’d had experience with a social worker before as my parents were recently approved to become foster carers, and we’d worked with a social worker through the application process. She’d had to get to know our family really well, so I spent quite a bit of time with her and could see that she did a really meaningful job.

But it was Think Ahead’s focus on mental health that really convinced me. I don’t have personal experience of mental illness, but I know a lot of people who have. In South Asian culture, mental health issues often aren’t taken very seriously, and people sometimes feel guilty about revealing a problem.  Someone close to me had depression and was self-harming, but when she told people about her mental health problems, she wasn’t taken seriously at all. Seeing her being treated like that made me want to work in mental health.

Social work can really improve people’s lives, by helping with the social situations that play a big role in mental health. There aren’t many professions where you can build relationships with people and stand up for them in the same way. I also like how varied the job is – always meeting new people, learning more about different mental health issues, and finding ways to provide support.

Aisha – Queen Mary University of London graduate

The fast-track, on-the-job nature of the programme stood out as being particularly impressive.

Jake University of Cambridge graduate

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I graduated in 2011 with a degree in History from Cambridge and since then I have tried a number of different careers.

I started out as a journalist, but more recently I was working in international development in Bangkok for the United Nations. I was working in policy and, although it was a great experience, I found it all quite bureaucratic and restrictive in terms of having a direct impact on the people I wanted to support. I began to realise that the most interesting people were not the bureaucrats but the experts with frontline knowledge and experience who were advocating for change.

I read about Think Ahead in an article in the Guardian and it really made me aware of mental health social work as an exciting career choice. Mental health has always been an interest of mine – especially as my dad lived with clinical depression when I was younger – so I immediately thought “this is for me”.

The fast-track, on-the-job nature of the programme, along with the generous support available, stood out as being particularly impressive. But more than anything Think Ahead helped me understand the impact social workers can have in people’s lives through actively engaging with them on a day-to-day basis.

I’m really looking forward to honing my social work skills over the coming years. I know there will be tough parts, but I’m excited about developing my own authentic style of social work. More generally, I’m just really keen to support people with the social issues that influence mental health – like housing, access to care and education – and to gain an understanding of those things you can’t learn academically.

For the first time in my life, I feel like I’ve found the career I want!

Jake – University of Cambridge graduate

I wanted a career where I could make a tangible difference. Everything Think Ahead offered really spoke to me.

Amy University of Oxford graduate

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It sounds like a cliché but I knew I wanted a career where I could make a tangible difference. In my second year at university I had a panic about what I wanted to do, and looked at graduate roles, but they were all predominantly city and corporate schemes and I couldn’t see how I’d be making the kind of difference I wanted to make.

After finding Think Ahead on a careers website I attended a talk of theirs at Oxford. Everything Think Ahead offered really spoke to me, matching the things I wanted to achieve.

What struck me was how social work is such an interdisciplinary role. I studied Human Sciences, a subject where we take a holistic and individual approach to understanding people just like in social work. My degree made me see people in different ways, and I feel that Think Ahead allows me to put that insight into practice. Although at first it felt daunting when some other participants seemed to have a greater level of work experience, I do think my degree has put me in very good stead.

What I want from Think Ahead is to become good at giving others what they need. After the two-year programme I plan to stay on the frontline and gain more experience. I’d like to qualify as an Approved Mental Health Professional and perhaps eventually work in policy, for which as much experience as possible would be vital. But I definitely want to stay in mental health – it’s what I’m passionate about and Think Ahead lets me follow that passion!

Amy – University of Oxford graduate

Each day is different and I welcome having to think on my feet and the spontaneity it brings.

Kazim University of Nottingham graduate

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I studied Psychology for my undergraduate degree followed by a Graduate Diploma in Law. Having also worked in the NHS part time from the age of 16, I wanted to be involved in work that was directly helping people.

I worked as a healthcare assistant and then went on to be an assistant psychologist at a secure unit. The job allowed me to work with people over a long period of time, building up a rapport with individuals receiving treatment, which I learnt was crucial in delivering effective therapeutic care.

Although I really enjoyed working there, one of the more difficult aspects of the job was seeing people be discharged but then re-admitted again soon afterwards, or re-admitted several times over a period of years. I often felt that I was reacting to people’s mental health issues, rather than working in a proactive way. I’d rather see and care for people in the community to help stop them from having to go into hospital, and I felt that with the skills I’d developed I would be better suited to this kind of work.

It wasn’t until I saw the Think Ahead programme that I considered social work. Once I understood the range of work that social workers do, I realised the role is much more community-based and proactive than anything I had done before. The uniquely holistic approach of social work really attracted me.

I’m driven by helping people with mental health problems to maintain their place in the community and their relationships, and to take steps towards getting well so that they can enjoy their lives. Social work gives people the tools to do this.

I was also attracted to the variation within the role – each day is different and I welcome having to think on my feet and the spontaneity it brings.

Kazim – University of Nottingham graduate

Social work is so holistic and practical. You get out and empower people. That’s how I want to help.

Sonya University of Manchester graduate

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I’ve always had a strong interest in mental health, but after my degree in Psychology and Neuroscience I ended up working in the pharmaceutical industry. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a passion this field, so I went back to studying and did a masters in Medical Anthropology, where I specialised in mental health. It really grew my interest – I enjoyed learning about the social and cultural aspects that affect people’s mental health.

Before I joined Think Ahead I was working for the Royal College of Psychiatrists doing research and auditing. I also volunteered at a small healthcare clinic in Bethnal Green, run by Doctors of the World. The clinic helps people who are struggling to access the NHS – often asylum-seekers and refugees. I would usually be the first person they saw at the clinic and would do health and social care assessments, refer them to a doctor or nurse if needed, and get them registered with a GP and educate them about what they’re entitled to.

In my volunteering I could see how much social situations can affect mental health. A lot of the people I met were struggling with their mental health but they didn’t know how to get help. Their problems were often linked to difficult backgrounds, or some had awful journeys to get to the UK.

I considered psychology and counselling, but I wanted to interact with people beyond the four walls of the therapy room. Social work is so holistic and practical. You get out and empower people by helping them with social issues like housing, employment, and building relationships. That’s how I want to help.

Sonya – University of Manchester graduate

The Think Ahead attributes

Think Ahead is an intensive programme with strictly limited places, and the selection process is very rigorous.

We are looking for exceptional individuals who have the potential to become excellent mental health social workers, and go on to become leaders in their fields.

You don’t need any prior experience of social work, but you will need to demonstrate that you have the attributes necessary to excel on the Think Ahead programme and beyond.

To be successful, you will need to demonstrate all of these attributes:

Leadership

The ability to act as a professional role model, demonstrate initiative, and engage others and enable them to achieve their goals.

As a mental health social worker you will lead the coordination of individuals’ care, engaging with different colleagues and professionals to work towards someone’s recovery. You may need to be creative in your approach to situations as you work with individuals, their carers, and other professionals.

Motivation

Personal commitment to transforming the lives of people with mental illness, with an understanding of the positive impact of social work and the Think Ahead mission.

We are looking for people who are committed to making a positive impact for individuals, families, and communities. You need to understand how social work contributes to improving mental health, and how Think Ahead is making a difference.

Adaptability

Resilience and flexibility in changing circumstances, with the ability to work under pressure and deal with uncertain or unexpected outcomes.

Social work is an ever-changing environment and you will need to be prepared for every eventuality, including crisis situations. Your work with vulnerable adults will put you under pressure, and you will need to remain calm and patient in unexpected situations. You will work with a variety of different people in a range of working environments.

Relationship-building

Empathy and respect for all individuals, with the ability to build relationships and understand people’s motives and perspectives.

You will need to develop strong relationships with people, from service users and carers to colleagues in mental health, government, the legal system, and many other services. You must be able to listen to others and respect their opinions, and confidently put forward your views as an advocate for the people in your care.

Communication

The ability to collaborate with and influence a wide range of people, in person and through written communication.

You will need to communicate effectively and respectfully with people whose ability to communicate may be impaired by their illness. A vital element of your role will also be collaborating and negotiating with other mental health professionals (such as psychiatrists and psychologists) and people from other organisations. As well as communicating assertively in meetings and discussions, you will need to create robust, concise written arguments, for example in writing Mental Health Act tribunal reports.

Problem-solving

The ability to objectively analyse situations, using evidence and clear judgement to generate effective solutions.

You will have to make decisions under pressure, in complex situations with only conflicting or incomplete information available. This will require you to apply your knowledge of legislation, policy, and social work interventions, using clear judgement and objectivity.

Self-awareness

The ability to understand, and reflect critically on, both your own personal development and how your actions affect others.

To manage your personal wellbeing and your impact on the people you work with, you must be in touch with your own emotions and abilities. You will manage a pressured workload and face difficult ethical judgements, so you must be aware of professional boundaries and know when to seek support and advice. You will be required to regularly reflect on your work, seeking feedback and engaging in continuous professional development.